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The Victor

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            “Your Majesty.”  Marte sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Are you certain that you want to arrange another marriage?  I hardly need to remind you that your last effort to arrange an adventitious marriage didn’t end so well.”

            Runeard glared at his Minister of Trade.  “Remind me why I keep you around.”

            “Because I’m the only one left who you know won’t lie to kiss your ass,” she replied dryly.  “And there still isn’t a suitable replacement trained up to replace me.  The estimated losses to our treasury on a bi-monthly basis should you choose to fire me would be-“

            “It was a hypothetical question, Marte!”  Runeard cut her off.  “You know I value your counsel.  But there is no reason not to proceed with Anna’s marriage to Prince Hans of the Southern Isles.  They’ve met several times.  They seem to like one another well enough.  She met his family last year.  I’m sure even you wouldn’t object to having preferential trade relations with them.”

            Marte shrugged.  “It’s a semi-lucrative prospect, but Anna is still young and – “

            “No.  That argument worked when she was turning sixteen and Agnarr was being especially difficult about it, but she’s only three weeks away from eighteen now.  And I would rather take a less lucrative option with a boy who will bend to my will than some wealthy upstart with ambitions of ruling.  Hans is a charming young man, treats her like the little flower she is, and doesn’t have a defiant bone in his body.  He’s as easy-going as royalty comes.  Besides – look at the lot of them in the Southern Isles.  They make boys.  I’ll have a grandson in no time.”

            “Her father-“

            “Agnarr will do as he’s told.  Or this time I’ll ship him to Russia and won’t summon him home.  Anna isn’t a little girl any longer.  She doesn’t need her father.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Elsa yawned and stretched her arms over her head.  Honeymaren, never one to rise early, grumbled something sleepily and pulled the blankets over her head.  Elsa smiled and slipped out of their bedroll, closing the door gently behind her as she stepped out into the sunlight.  Her mother was already awake, cradling little Minni against her chest as she tried to start a fire.

            “Mother.”  Elsa shook her head.  “I can have Bruni do that.”  Immediately, the tiny salamander appeared.  Elsa nodded at the small pile of kindling as her mother stepped back, jiggling the infant against her shoulder.

            “Thank you.  I thought Destin and Kaija could use some sleep and this wee one was crying all night.  They looked so tired!”  Her mother nodded towards her kota.  “I’ve got Little Destin and Valde still resting in there.”  Elsa laughed and stooped to retrieve a small pot as the purple flames licked towards the sky.  She hung it over the fire to warm the porridge.

            “But we’re still going, right?”  Elsa asked uncertainly.  Her mother smiled sadly and tapped the baby on the nose as it cooed.

            “Yes, darling.  Of course we are.  But we can wait until midday to go and still be back well before evening.”  She nodded.  Good.  Her mother had barely been able to leave her kota the previous year.  Honeymaren always promised to go with Elsa if her mother was ever unable to make the trip to the southern border, but it wouldn’t be the same.  They needed to mourn.  To ask whatever gods or spirits were listening to protect and keep her father and sister from harm.

            Today was the eighth anniversary of her Grandpa’s murder at the hands of her Grandfather.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Agnarr sat quietly in the chapel.

            He shut his eyes and sighed.  This was the best he could do to remember them.

            Mattias sat next to him in heavy silence.  For all of Agnarr’s pain, at least he was certain that Iduna and Elsa were with the Northuldra.  There had been scattered reports and rumors that Destin Jr. and several other cadets who had been gathered up by a cavalry captain had last been seen heading for the northern forest, and no bodies had ever been found, but he couldn’t imagine his friend’s pain at not knowing where his son had gone.

            Sergeant Kornhonen cleared his throat from the back of the annex.  He heard Mattias grunt.  It had been one of Runeard’s enduring punishments that so long as Agnarr was in Arendelle, Kornhonen was to be his personal escort.  A constant reminder of how little he was trusted by his father or anyone else in the castle.  Agnarr opened his eyes and watched as the candles they had lit burned brightly in the gloom.

            “Halima was wondering if you would like to join us for dinner tonight.”  Mattias said, breaking the oppressive silence.

            “He still didn’t invite you to the banquet?”  Every year since the mist had come down, Runeard held a banquet in honor of his victory over the Chief Elder of the Northuldra and his treacherous daughter.  Agnarr had never been invited either, although the king insisted that Anna attend each year.

            “No.  Cecilia is going this year at Anna’s personal request.”

            “Good.  I know it’s hard on her.  It will be good for her to have a friend.”  Agnarr clapped his hands against his thighs.  “And I would be honored to join you for dinner.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

           

            Iduna placed her hand against the mist and closed her eyes.  She could still see her father fall.  Still see Runeard’s hateful face twisted in its fury.  Elsa’s shock.  The mist falling before them, only yards away, shielding them from the outside world.  Even after all the years, it was still crystal clear in her mind.  So, too, was her last glimpse of Agnarr as he grabbed hold of Anna letting out a broken whimper as Iduna dragged Elsa away through a hidden panel in the wall.  Even the sound had stayed with her.

            Her hand grew cold against the firm pressure of the air.  She opened her eyes and saw that Elsa had raised her hand as well.  As always, the quality of the light fighting through the mist changed and the barrier seemed thinner for a split second as it glittered around her daughter’s hand.  But try as she might, Elsa had never been able to force her hand through.  And although Yelena had been asking her more often if there was any way she could take it down, if the spirits had told her of any way that they could leave or that Arendelle could enter, Elsa always denied that anything could be done.

            It had upset Elsa enough that Iduna had a quiet conversation with the Chief Elder.  And then a not-so-quiet conversation with the Chief Elder.  And then had to be restrained by her mother to keep from coming to physical blows with the Chief Elder who insisted that the Fifth Spirit must know more than she was telling.  She and Yelena had made peace over a shared bottle of cloudberry wine.

            “I miss them,” Elsa said.

            Iduna felt a pang in her chest.

            “So do I.”

            “I wish we could see them again.”  Elsa dropped her hand.  “Do you think we ever will?”

            “Only Ahtohallan knows, Elsa.”

            “Mother,” Elsa sighed and gave her a weary smile.  “I’ve asked.  It doesn’t show me the future.”

            Iduna squeezed her shoulder.  “Then I suppose we’ll have to wait to find out.”

           

*          *          *          *          *

 

            “Princess Anna!”  The kitchen maids jumped to attention as Anna appeared.  “We were – what are you doing down here, Your Highness?”  Anna laughed and waved off their worried hovering.  They weren’t used to seeing her outside of snack time.

            “Just checking on preparations for tonight’s banquet!  Don’t mind me.”

            The taller one looked at the shorted one and shrugged.  “As you please, Your Highness.  Um, there are fresh sugar cookies that have just come out of the oven.”

            “Oh, are there?  Thank you, Singe.  I’ll grab some on my way back up.”  She clasped her hands together.  “Has the ice been delivered yet?  I was hoping to select a special block to have carved.  One that’s especially clear.”

            “No, Your Highness.  Mr. Bjorgman usually makes his delivery at noon, so you’ve a few minutes.”

            “I’ll just go and wait then, thank you!”  She slipped past as they curtsied and found herself in the secluded passage that led from the delivery entry to the cold store room.  Anna idly traced a finger along the cool stone of the wall. 

            Another banquet, another show.  At least Cecilia would be there this evening.  If she was lucky, she could try to steal some private time with her father in the next week.  So they could even acknowledge, if only to one another, that Elsa and her mother had ever existed as anything other than the monsters that Runeard made them out to be to the public.  She shuddered and rubbed her arms against her side.

            Suddenly, there was a large, warm pair of arms embracing her from behind.  A solid form melded against her back as she smiled and Kristoff’s low voice in her ear.

            “Are you cold?”

            She grinned and squirmed from his grasp, turning to face him.  It had been a week since she had seen him last.  Unbearably long, but her Grandfather had been very insistent she take over the annual banquet as primary hostess.

            “No,” she breathed, resting her cheek against his solid, reassuring form.  “I just missed you.”

            “I missed you too.”  He cupped his hands gently against her face and kissed her.

Chapter Text

            Anna sat demurely as she watched Grandfather open yet another of his correspondences.  He was speaking to her as he worked the sharp letter opener to break apart yet another wax seal before casually glancing at the missive and tossing it onto one of several piles.  Although she smiled politely and nodded, she gave him little of her attention.  She scanned the rise and fall of his voice for key phrases that would prompt a different response such as “Shall we send your father off to America this time?” or “Have you given any more thought to Hans’ proposal to come and stay for the summer?”.  But Anna had learned years ago that if she wanted to maintain her sanity, or at least not be imprisoned for regicide, it was best she not listen too closely.

            “You did very well at last week’s banquet, Anna,” he said as he brushed some flecks of red wax off his cuff.  “Maintaining discipline within one’s realm is a large part of being a ruler, but maintaining diplomatic ties is just as important.  And you managed to accomplish both.  Several visiting delegates complimented me on your choice of menu, the décor, the dancing – you’re a natural hostess.”

            “Thank you, Grandfather.  I appreciate you trusting me enough to oversee such a big event.”     

            “Of course, my dear.”  He paused and frowned.  She tensed.  “And I want to acknowledge that your feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that you had to speak of your mother and sister during your speech.”

            “They’re traitors.”  She waved a dismissive hand and curled her lip.  “It’s a pity we even have to mention them each year.  But it’s important for the people of Arendelle to know what they did.  To the kingdom.  To my father.  To me.  To you!”  He smiled, but hesitated with a letter in his hand.  She continued.  “Everyone knows how they tried to kill you, Grandfather.  How they fled like cowards to escape your justice.  And I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.  And for my father, even if he’s still addled by my mother’s enchantments from time to time – to help us stand apart from the shadow of their treachery.”

            Anna had cut a few of those lines from the second draft of her speech for being too over the top to be plausible in front of an audience, but subtly was lost on Runeard.  She relaxed as he sliced open the next seal.

            “Still.  It was impressive and I offer you my most sincere congratulations.  It just proves to the kingdom and to our allies what a remarkable young woman you’ve become.  I look forward to toasting you at your upcoming eighteenth birthday ball.”

            “Thank you, Grandfather.”

            “Hans will be there, you know.”

            “Will he?  He had mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to attend.”  She forced herself to blush the way her father had taught her.  “I didn’t want to be too bold and forward by inviting him myself.”

            “That’s a fine instinct, Anna.”  Runeard nodded approvingly.  “Especially for someone of your standing.  But of course I invited him.  He’ll be a fine match for you in due time.”

            Anna’s eye twitched and she wanted to scream, but she maintained her beatific smile.  “I’m sure in a few years, we’ll be very happily wed.  If you think it’s the right match.”

            “I think he’s a smart young man who knows how lucky he would be to marry you.  And I saw how well you got on with his family.  All those brothers and nieces and nephews.  You’ll have little ones of your own in no time.”  He wagged a finger at her.  “And family, Anna, is where true happiness comes from.  Knowing that you’re leaving a legacy behind.  A firm foundation on which the future of our land rests.”

            He sighed.  “And Hans comes from an old royal line.  A storied pedigree.  It’s a shame that in these modern times people even care about such things, but they do.  And while your mother was the equivalent of nobility among those savages, that doesn’t hold much weight on the continent.  Your children will benefit from his blood.”

            Again, the scream rose in her, but she suppressed it and spoke evenly, calmly.  “I think he’ll make a wonderful consort and father.  And we do get on very well.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Agnarr sat in the library at a small table, reading a book and drinking a tiny glass of port.  No one could fault him for being there.  Sergeant Kornhonen, his usual escort, had taken two days of family leave to welcome a visiting brother.  Since Agnarr was not scheduled to leave the castle, no one had bothered to assign another guard to follow him.  He had been so well behaved the last several years that Runeard had grown a bit lax.  Every few weeks or so, he found himself with a few hours where he was completely alone.

            He heard the door open and close.  A lock snapped into place.  He smiled faintly, but kept his book open until Anna came into sight.  She grinned at the sight of him as he rose to pull her into a fierce hug.

            “How have you been, Anna?” 

            “Good, Father.”  She squeezed him back.  He released her and motioned to an empty chair.  “I almost didn’t get your message in time.”  She nodded at the atlas where they left their clandestine notes.

            “Yes, I’m sorry.  Kornhonen didn’t know his leave was approved until two days ago.  It’s good to see you.  Has your grandfather been treating you well?”

            “Yes, he’s very excited that Hans is coming to visit again.  One of the guests of honor at my birthday ball.”  Agnarr rolled his eyes.  That boy was pompous, overly polished and entirely untrustworthy.  It galled him that even Marte had been taken in by the man’s charming act.  Anna laughed.  “I know, I know how you feel about him.”  The light in her eyes dimmed and she bit her lip. 

            “He was also very happy with my speech at the banquet.”  Agnarr reached out and took one of her hands in his own.  “I know why it’s important for me to get up in front of everyone and say what I do, but I feel so . . .I hate it.  I feel like I’m betraying Elsa.  Betraying Mother.”

            “You’re not.  Your mother and sister both love you so much.  They would never want you to do anything that would put you in harm’s way.  Keeping in your grandfather’s good graces is the smartest thing you can do.”

            “I know.”  Agnarr felt a pang as Anna slumped in her seat, looking weary and wracked with guilt.

            “Anna, when I had to publicly denounce your mother and your sister it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.”  He sighed heavily and bowed his head.  “Even knowing that it’s what your mother would have demanded I do to keep you safe – it took me a long time to forgive myself.  I’m still not at peace with it. But saying those words, even if I had to swallow back my bile, that was the price I paid.  My biggest regret is that burden has now fallen to you.”

            “Do you really think the people of Arendelle believe they’re as evil as he says they are?”

            “It’s hard to tell.  Some probably do.  People don’t always question things the way that they should.  They fell for your grandfather’s lies about the Northuldra invading hardly twenty-years ago.”  He scratched his chin.  “I fell for them as well.  Your mother was brave enough to let me see the truth about a number of things.  But your mother was so kind to so many.  She did so much good while I was being shipped off every year.  I have to believe that a number of people don’t think it’s true, but are too afraid to say anything.  It’s not wise to cross the king.”

            “I’ve been having dreams about them again.”

            Agnarr gave her a sad smile.  “My darling girl, I never stopped having dreams about them.  You’re having happy ones, I hope?”

            A wistful grin spread across her face.  “Mostly.  Things from when we were young.  Elsa letting us goad her into playing pranks on the adults in the Enchanted Forest.  Mother singing while you’d play the violin at the Sommerhus.  Skating with Cecilia and Destin on the fjord when it froze for the winter.  It’s mostly memories.  Or the way I want to remember things.”  She rubbed her arms. 

            “But sometimes, it’s hard to explain.  When I dream the memories, I’m a part of the dream.  I sometimes have other dreams where Elsa looks like I think she must look like by now.  She’s taller.  And she’s in Ahtohallan.”

            “The river of memory?”

            “Only it doesn’t look like a river.”  Anna laughed.  “There’s just this inky blackness and silver shimmering light.  People rise up out of the snow and swirl around her.” 

            Agnarr thought back to everything Iduna had told him about the legends and magic of the spirits.  How her family had enjoyed an unusually close connection to them.  Valde had hinted there might be more to it than merely Elsa’s powers, but didn’t want to burden her as a child with any more expectations and responsibilities that she already carried.

            “How odd.  She’s safe though?”

            “I think so, I never see her face in full.  Sometimes I catch a glimpse of it through the shadows, but she’s always moving.”  Anna paused.  “And I see Mother too.  She has some wisps of gray in her hair, but not much.  More, you know, lines around her eyes and mouth.  And her hands are stiff in the cold.”  Anna rubbed her own hands together as she stared vacantly at the bookshelves.  “Sometimes . . .sometimes I see her holding a baby.  Or I see Elsa holding a baby.  The same one.”  Her eyes locked with his.  “Do you think it means anything?”

            Agnarr tried to force a laugh.  “I think I was the only one without any magic in this family, Anna.  You, your mother and your sister – you could all have the spirits at your beck and call.  Maybe not like Elsa did, but the Earth Giants loved you.  The North Wind had such an affinity for your mother that it never stopped helping her cheat at tag.  All it ever did for me was dump me into various trees and mud puddles which made your mother laugh.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t know what it means.”

            They had to be alive.  He believed that like he believed the sun would rise in the morning.  If anything happened to either of them, he knew that he would feel it.  As a father.  As a husband.  He felt their physical absence so keenly, it was impossible to think that if their souls left this world he wouldn’t feel it as painfully as though his own heart was being removed. 

            Besides, Mr. Bjorgman’s unconventional adoptive family had confirmed that they were alive.  If Anna’s pure affection for the young man hadn’t been enough to win over Agnarr, his halting way of asking permission before he made inquiries through the trolls about Elsa and Iduna’s well-being would have won him Agnarr’s lifelong approval.  Although they were unable to use their odd brand of magic to divine much beyond the mist, claiming that the powers of the spirits left them blind in many ways that humans could not understand, their means and powers allowed them to determine that his wife and daughter were alive and healthy. 

            It was more than he had a right to ask for, but still left him longing to know more.  Were they happy?  Robbed of her crown, had Elsa stepped into a leadership role in her mother’s tribe?  Had she found someone to share her life with?  She was twenty-one.  He knew married women younger than she who already had children.  He might be a grandfather by now.

            Had Iduna found another to comfort her?  He doubted it and he was torn between not wanting to lose her a second time should the mist vanish and not wanting her to feel as desperately lonely as he did every day.  The pain of missing her had not abated in the least.  He would never wish that suffering on her even if it meant being replaced, but he couldn’t bring himself to sincerely hope she had found another. 

            Mattias usually stopped him from pouring another drink when they got to this part of the conversation as they discussed being separated from their loved ones.  Such thoughts did no one any good.  Agnarr cleared his throat to clear his mind.

            “Have you been able to steal any time with your good friend lately?” 

             “I did!”  Anna’s smile grew broad and bright.  It warmed his heart to see an expression of genuine happiness on her face.  She leaned forward conspiratorially.  “Just before the banquet.  There was talk of a birthday surprise.”

            “Yes, it’s been in the works for some time.” 

            They were both careful not to speak Kristoff’s name or even discuss a ‘him’.  It was unlikely that Runeard had anyone listening to them, but given the disastrous consequences that would come from discovery, it was best to be discreet.  They had even agreed to refer to him as “Cecilia’s Youngest Cousin” if they ever had to discuss him in public should the need arise.

            “You know what it is?”  She looked delighted.  “Can you give me a hint?”

            “That would ruin the surprise, Anna.”

            “Oh, come on.  Surprises are overrated!”  She groaned.  “You know I can’t wait two weeks.”

            He laughed.  “I think you’ll enjoy it.  Your friend put a lot of thought into it.”

            She relaxed back into her chair with a smile and gazed out the window.  “I’m sure I will enjoy it.  It will be nice, you know?  When things are . . .different.”  When Runeard was dead.  Though it pained him to think of Anna wishing death on anyone, to have that kind of hatred so concealed in an otherwise full and loving heart, the king’s death would mean her freedom.  Agnarr drummed his fingers on the table and nodded.

            “It will be.”

             

Chapter Text

            Elsa set out early that morning for Ahtohallan.  She found it best if she departed before the others in the village rose for their morning chores.  It led to fewer questions and fewer people to tell Yelana where she was heading.  She had lied for a while and told anyone who asked that she was merely going for a ride on Nokk or out to scout the lichen meadows for any dangers, but Honeymaren and her grandmother had convinced her to stop.

            “It’s been eight years.  People are scared.”  Her grandmother told her.

            “Everyone feels better knowing that you’re looking for answers.”  Honeymaren added.

            She had asked her mother what she should do.

            “Darling.”  Her mother sighed.  “You should do what you think is best.”

            And so she compromised.  She made sure that her people knew she visited the River of Memory at least twice a week.  But she left early to avoid distracting questions or their heartbreaking expressions of hope.  It was easier to concentrate, to see what the river had to share, when she arrived with a clear mind.  Then she could contend with everyone’s disappointment in her and her sense of failure when she returned to tell them that, once again, the river yielded no answers about how to escape the Mist.

            Nokk settled into an easy canter as they moved over the churning waves of the Dark Sea.  When she had been a little girl, her father had told her stories of the cursed sea and how no trade ships could safely cross its stormy waters.  Tales of ghost ships and lost loves and tragic endings that had left her and Anna wide-eyed and her mother slightly exasperated just before bedtime.  He had only stopped when Anna woke crying, terrified that their Grandfather would send him on his next trip across the dangerous waters.  He stuck to land-based horrors after that.

            She smiled faintly at the memory.  She wished she could tell him that he had been wrong.  That the Dark Sea wasn’t always a death sentence for anyone who tried to cross.  There were times of the year she had seen the waters utterly becalmed.  And there were two routes she had identified which, if sailed in the late spring or early autumn, would carry a quick ship through safely.

            Yelana had asked several times if she could accompany Elsa on one of her trips.  Eventually, Elsa relented after the warnings she gave the elder were met with a shrug and a raised eyebrow.  Yelana feared little and didn’t seem to be concerned with her own death, even if Elsa thought she should be.  It had been three years prior, during the hottest part of the summer and Yelana had brought her thickest furs.  She had managed to last the ride across the waters, clutching Elsa’s waist without complaining of the cold or the icy spray.  But so bone-chilling was the air in the entrance way, that they had only made it several paces into the cave before Yelana had collapsed with a painful moan.

            The Chief Elder had difficulty breathing for several weeks after that.  It was one of the few times she had apologized to Elsa, admitting that she should have listened to Elsa’s warnings as the Fifth Spirit.  Elsa still wasn’t certain what Yelana had been hoping to accomplish with her foolhardy demand – she was able to summon the memories she had witnessed and recreate them in ice and snow for the Northuldra whenever she wished.  She finally decided that Yelana was simply so desperate to have the Mist lifted, that she was willing to risk her life to find out if what Elsa had told her was true.  That asking Ahtohallan about the Mist was futile.  That doing so yielded no answers nor hints.  Only silence from the ice, a crushing sense of eternity in those quiet halls, and the depressing knowledge that even magic had its limits.

            Loved ones long since gone, scenes that answered small mysteries, the antics of old men and women from when they had been small children – Elsa was only too happy to reveal what she could.  It brought joy and peace to so many people.  She only wished her mother could find some comfort in her ability to conjure her sister and father.  But her mother never asked her to do so.  She had done it unprompted, when she was younger, showed her proof that both were alive, healthy as Anna grew taller and her father grew older,

            Then she had noticed that her mother would stop eating for a day or two following a glimpse of Anna or her father.  She never said anything to Elsa, only praised her abilities and thanked her for sharing her gift, but Elsa knew.  So she stopped and waited for her mother to ask.  But her mother never asked to see them.  Only what Elsa had seen of them.  If they were whole and well.

            She arrived at the glacial cave and dismounted Nokk, patting its neck before it vanished into the sea.  Elsa ran her fingers idly over the smooth walls of the ice cave as she made her way into its depths, the shimmering colors of the light giving way to a deep blue as she descended.  Over the years, she had improved the passage to the deepest reaches of the cave.  Youthful hubris had inspired her to leave it rather impassable as a teenager, but one reindeer mating season where she and Honeymaren had gotten into a drinking contest with Ryder and Destin had led to some regrettable dares and betting and she had managed to snap her ankle.  That had been enough to convince her to make several gentle sloping bridges and staircases.  With handrails.

            It had been rather frightening the first time she explored Ahtohallan, not entirely certain what to expect.  The stories and legends of the Northuldra held hints, but were hardly exhaustive.  Even the spirits were unable to communicate exactly what she would experience there.  When the first spectral snow figure had appeared suddenly from the darkness, she had let out a short shriek and jumped back.  Even now, sometimes they appeared unusually early and startled her, but for the most part were a delight to see.

            She saw Colonel Mattias first today.  He and Halima were walking arm in arm.  Cecilia was trailing behind them.  Elsa grinned.  Little Destin and Valde knew what their grandparents in the south and their only aunt looked like.  Minni was only a baby, but had seemed fascinated trying to grab her grandmother’s snowy bun the first time she had seen it.  This would be a nice memory to share with them when she returned.

            A few clusters of townsfolk from Arendelle wandered by her, going about their daily business and unconcerned.  Several of the reindeer herders she knew played a game of catch as the herd grazed nearby.  She saw Marte Gundersen sitting at a desk with books stacked high around her, mumbling to herself about impulsive, idiot kings who hadn’t learned their lesson the first time around.  Elsa smiled and shook her head at that.  She missed Marte.  Her grandmother was performing a ritual in honor of her grandpa’s memory.  Destin was squeezing Kaija into a tight hug.

            And there was Anna.  She looked as though she had been wandering through the market square.  A tall man with a nose that rivaled their father’s passed her, hauling a block of ice on each of his broad shoulders, his thick leathers marking him as an ice harvester.  He and Anna nodded politely to one another as they went about their business.  Anna continued walking in the direction that Elsa assumed the castle would be, hands folded behind her back, but the young man glanced back at her. 

            Elsa frowned and froze the scene.  She wasn’t entirely certain how it worked.  The spirits had never explained it.  But she could exert some control over the flow of time and the figures that were animated within it.  She could stop them.  Reverse them.  Speed their actions.  She had the ice harvester take a few steps back and then he stepped forward again.  There it was.  She froze it for the brief instant it crossed his face.  From polite disinterest in the young princess to a look of naked longing that vanished almost immediately.

            She could have sworn she had seen him before.  But then she turned to her sister who was still walking away.  She wasn’t here to examine a young man’s fancy in her sister.  She watched as Anna vanished into the ground.  Elsa closed her eyes and willed all of the memories to fall away.  There was the soft sound of snow falling off a roof as the figures collapsed.

            “I want to see her, please.”  Elsa pressed her hands against the ground and opened her eyes.  Anna materialized.  She was dressed in what Elsa could only assume was the latest fashion in Arendelle.  The dress was large, with ruffled sleeves and Anna’s hands looked heavy with jeweled rings.  Fascinated, Elsa sat back on her haunches.  Anna looked older than ever before and remarkably regal.  Every inch the future Queen of Arendelle.  She held her back straight and poised, her hands clasped in front of her waist.  She was speaking.  Elsa waved a hand to hear her voice.

            “. . .and it is an honor to be standing here tonight, before all of you.”  Elsa smiled.  Her little sister was giving an address.  “I would like to thank my grandfather, King Runeard, for the opportunity to once again address my mother’s treachery and my sister’s unholy-“

            “Ugh.”  Elsa rolled her eyes and waved her hands.  Anna dematerialized.  Runeard must have had Anna give the speech again this year. 

            The first time she had heard her father’s speech denouncing her and her mother just months after the Mist fell had been upsetting.  She cried for hours before managing to calm herself enough to ride Nokk home and then collapsed into her mother’s arms.  It had been a dagger to her heart to hear her own father, who had always been so patient and kind, use those words to describe her.  A witch.  An unholy abomination.  A danger to Arendelle and to all good people.  Her mother had held her and stroked her hair. When she had finally run out of tears, her mother had wiped her face, rubbed her back, and smiled sadly.

            “Elsa, you father loves you and your sister more than anything.  You’re here with me.  You’re safe from Runeard.  But your sister is still with him.  She’s still in danger.  And if I know your father, he will say and do whatever he needs to do to keep Anna safe.  He has no idea you can hear those words and there is absolutely no chance that he believes them.”

            It had helped.  And her grandmother had told her the same thing.

            “He also called Mother a traitor and . . .”  Well.  He had called her mother several other words that Elsa wasn’t about to repeat in front of her grandmother.  Her grandmother just laughed.

            “Your father was in love with her when he was your age.  And he loved her so much that he risked his inheritance to protect her and try to make things right between us and Arendelle.  Your father is a skilled orator, Elsa, he’s just saying what he needs to say to stay with Anna.  I know it in my heart.”

            It had been upsetting enough that she had waited several weeks before returning.  But when she had, one of the first memories the river had shown her was her father.  It had been an unusually long and complete memory.  But it followed him as he left the square, returned to his chambers, and broke down into tears.  If Elsa had held any lingering fear that he believed anything he had said, that he loved her any less, that had quashed it.

            By the time she had heard such hateful words emerge from Anna’s mouth several years later, she had been startled, but thrilled that her sister was clearly deceiving their grandfather so completely.  It meant that she was safe.  As safe as they had any right to hope she would be.  Although there was always the threat of a marriage to Hans of the Southern Isles looming.  Elsa had summoned as many memories of the young man as she could manage.  She was certain of one thing.

            Whatever image he presented to Marte and Runeard was not a genuine reflection.  In as much as she could tell, he was a petty, power-hungry narcissist and she didn’t believe for a minute that Anna would be happy if they were wed.  She only hoped that Anna and her father were able to keep pushing any engagement announcement back as they had done before.  Elsa sighed and scratched her head, considering her options for a long moment.  She pressed her hands against the ice once more.

            “Show me my father, please.”

           

Chapter Text

            “I would like to thank you again for inviting me to Arendelle once more, Your Majesty.”  Anna watched as Hans bowed his head.  Around her, several of the staff bustled as a small lunch was served.  It was only the three of them, but there was one empty setting.  She wondered who was missing.

            “Think nothing of it, my boy.”  Runeard waved a hand.  “Anna wanted you here.”

            Hans’ gaze fell on her and Anna looked away demurely.  Over his past several visits and letters, he had grown increasingly persistent in his declarations of affection.  He had even mentioned directly to her how disappointed his father was that there was no formal declaration of engagement.  She found that playing the shy maiden was the best way to handle him.  No one could fault virtue.  She took a small sip of water, thinking about Kristoff pressing her against the door of the store room and how virtue was rather overrated. 

            “And it is a true pleasure to see you, Princess Anna.”

            “It’s wonderful to see you too, Prince Hans.”  She smiled at Runeard.  “Grandfather, thank you for extending the invitation.  And for arranging this luncheon.”

            “Of course, my dear,” he said warmly as he began cutting his lamb with mint jelly.  “Your father will be joining us shortly as well.”  Anna exchanged a brief, shocked glance with Hans as both of their masks slipped for an instant.  Hans had been formally introduced to her father years before and had been permitted to pay his respect to him in court, but they had never dined with one another in such an intimate setting.  As for her, Anna could count on both hands how many times Runeard had allowed them to dine privately since she had turned fourteen.

            Hands recovered before she did.  “Oh?”  He managed to convey nothing more than polite interest.  “I look forward to speaking with His Highness.”

            Runeard snorted.  “You might have some trouble there.”  He gave Anna a meaningful look.  Anna smiled at Hans and gave an apologetic shrug.

            “My father so rarely has anything worth contributing to a conversation these days.”

            “Ah.”  Hans fiddled with his cutlery, but rallied.  “Well, nonetheless I’m sure we’ll all manage a pleasant meal when the present company is so lovely.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Her father hadn’t appeared until they had nearly finished their meal.  He extended his apologies, explaining that the runner had only just found him and notified him of his invitation to lunch.  Anna had to hand it to her grandfather.  When it came to petty slights and trying to hide the family’s unconventional turmoil from Hans, Runeard was quite clever.  Hans always seemed to walk away with the impression that her father was a rather incompetent dilettante who had been seduced and betrayed by an evil temptress and left a broken man as a result of it.  Still, she supposed, better that he have that impression instead of the knowledge that once Runeard got on with it and died, Hans would never be coming back to Arendelle.

            “It’s a shame that your father never wants to discuss his sailing days.”  Hans said as they strolled over the castle bridge to market square.  Several members of the Royal Guard trailed them at a discreet distance, acting as chaperones.  “I understand that by the time he was my age, he had served with distinction in several naval engagements.”

            “Oh?”  Anna had grown weary of Hans’ gently probing questions about her father years ago.  For all that he hated his own father, he never seemed as readily convinced as Runeard that she loathed her father and had long ago renounced all loyalty to him.  Hans could, in fact, be rather annoyingly perceptive at times. “Honestly, I’ve never asked.”

            “And I understand that he was quite well-travelled when he was younger.  I’ve heard from several dignitaries visiting the Southern Isles that he was held in high esteem in many courts around Europe.”

            “It’s true that he was often gone while I was growing up.”  She shrugged.  “I spent more time with my tutors than anyone else.”  That lie had spared her many explanations.  “My sister was often off with my mother.  We know why now.”  Anna sighed and hugged her arms against her side.  She knew how to change the course of this conversation.  “I was always a bit of an afterthought.”

            “I know what it’s like to be ignored,” Hans said.  Anna smiled at him.  So predictable.  He launched into a sad re-telling of some childhood insult his brothers had inflicted upon him.  Although, to be fair, all but one of his brothers had seemed remarkably unpleasant and brutish when she had met them the previous year.  Hans really had seemed to inherit the brains in that family.  She couldn’t blame him for wanting to leave, but she would be damned if she was going to be his means to do it.

            She let her mind wander as Hans continued to speak, eyeing the crowd of townspeople that milled around them as they went about their errands.  She searched the stalls to see where the ice harvesters were hawking their goods today.  It wasn’t uncommon for them to try to find a shaded area before pitching their tent.  Anna spotted Sven, tethered to a thick pole and casually started in his direction as Hans moved to follow her, talking the entire time.

            A breeze blew over the cool blocks of ice, covered in sawdust, and carried the refreshing hint of winter with it.  She smiled and closed her eyes.

            “If you think that’s nice, Your Highness, you should try this.”  She opened her eyes and grinned as Kristoff bowed low, a shaved ice in wax paper held in one hand.  There was so much drizzled syrup that it was the color of a baked bun. 

            “Why, thank you-“

            “Excuse me, but who do you think you are?”  Hans demanded in a cold tone as he stepped forward and linked his arm through hers, jerking her close to him.  Anna started, but he held her fast.  Kristoff blinked and straightened up.  “Addressing a member of the royal family so impudently?”

            “Hans.”  Anna placed her hand on his arm.  “In Arendelle, we don’t do formal introductions with our subjects.  It’s very common for Grandfather and I to be offered small gifts when we come to the market.”  She smiled and bowed her heads towards Kristoff.  “This gentleman here is one of our many ice harvesters.  They’re some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet and the backbone of our economy.  Minister Gundersen is always saying how without them, we would be a poor kingdom with few winter prospects for trade and employment.

            “Thank you, Your Highness,” Kristoff said as he bowed his head once more.

            “I see.”  Hans relaxed his grip on Anna.  “Well.  My apologies, Princess Anna.  Things are different where I come from.”

            “I understand, Hans.  But Grandfather thinks it’s best to accept the small tokens of respect that people have to offer us.”  She disentangled her arm from Hans’ and reached out to take the shaved ice.  She felt the pleasant familiar tingle run up her arm that always happened when their fingers brushed.  Someday she would be able to take his hand openly in the market square.  Someday.  But not today.  She took a small bite of the shaved ice.  Kristoff knew how tiresome she found Hans.  Hopefully they could have a laugh about this later and do more than just brush fingers.

            “Thank you, sir, it’s delicious.”

            “Thank you, Your Highness.  And if your companion would like one?”

            “No, thank you.”

            Kristoff bowed his head once more before looking at her.  “Good health to you and yours, Your Highness.  Enjoy your day.”

            “Thank you, enjoy yours as well.”  She took Hans by the arm and led him away, eating the shaved ice as they walked along the wharf.  The longshoremen and porters hustled around them, calling out orders and moving cargo around.  The harbor was the beating heart of Arendelle.  She loved it.  A small boy carrying a bucket of coal wandered by and eyed her ice hungrily.  It was a hot day.  She smiled and offered it to him.  He grinned, grabbed it and sat down on a crate to finish it.  Anna laughed and wiped the coal smudge he left on her thumb away with her handkerchief. 

            “Princess Anna, I know that this is your kingdom, but it’s a bit unwise to be so familiar with the commoners.”  Hans finally said.  She raised an eyebrow and he patted her hand.  “Please don’t misunderstand.  I don’t think there’s anything . . .untoward or unbecoming in speaking with a man you don’t know on the street, but the rest of Europe would consider it a bit odd.  Even the way you walk around with only a small security detail.  We just don’t do that in the Southern Isles.  No one in my family would visit the loading docks unless it was an official event, like a ship launch or a recognition ceremony for our navy.”

            “Oh?  As I said, Grandfather feels it’s important to have the love of the people.”

            “And he is correct,” Hans conceded.  “But that doesn’t mean a princess such as yourself should have to stoop to pandering to riff-raff like that man.  A king can come and go as he pleases, shaking hands and handing out trinkets, but an unmarried young woman?”  Hans shook his head.  “It just isn’t proper.  And it could put ideas into a man like that’s head.”

            Anna blushed.  There was no doubt what ideas Hans was alluding to and she was quite certain that Kristoff had plenty of those where she was concerned.  And she had just as many, if not more, about him. Hans noticed the flush of her cheeks and smiled apologetically.

            “I’m sorry.  I’m not trying to shock you or to imply your subjects don’t hold you in the highest regard.  But men are men.  And tradesmen are . . .not the sort that someone of your stature should be consorting with.  I only have your best interests at heart.”

            “I know, Hans.  And I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

 

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Kristoff held her as she embraced him tightly, clutching at his arms as her tears soaked into his shirt.  He rubbed her back until she was able to compose herself.  It made sense, now, why he had insisted that she come to Hudson’s Hearth to receive her birthday gift.  Colonel Mattias cleared his throat and held out a handkerchief.  She smiled gratefully and took it to blow her nose.  Halima smiled warmly at her as she sniffled and wiped her tears away.

            “Thank you all so, so much.”

            “See?”  Mattias grinned and elbowed his wife.  “I told you Agnarr wouldn’t tell her and ruin the surprise.  Pay up.”

            “Oh, hush you,” Halima said.  “Happy birthday, Anna.”  She pulled her into a hug.  “I know your mother should be here instead, wishing you a happy birthday, but take this from me in the meantime.”

            “Thank you, Halima.”  Anna hugged her tightly as they rocked back and forth.

            “We’ll let you two have some privacy now,” Cecilia said meaningfully as she began to steer her father towards the door.  “I have to run, but I’ll see you tomorrow at the ball.”

            “Thank you, Cecilia.  Colonel Mattias.”  Anna wiped her eyes again.  Cecilia winked at her and shut the door.  Kristoff gave her a soft smile and ran his large, warm hands up and down her arms.  “This is amazing, Kristoff.  Thank you so much for this.”

            “Happy birthday, Anna,” he murmured before lowering his head to gently kiss her.

            He had gone to several people who had been friends with her parents and were still loyal to assemble the treasure she now held.  A handcrafted book of memories.  He had gone to the Sommerhus and picked several flowers from the bushes and bulbs that she had planted years ago with Elsa and her mother.  He had pressed them and plastered them to the cover. 

            The first page was the personalized announcement her mother had given to her father to let him know that she was expecting.  There were sketches of her mother and sister and a handful of watercolors that had been done over the years. Elsa’s birth announcement, a small article describing her mother’s latest philanthropic efforts in the Arendelle, an old art project with Elsa and Anna’s handprints inked against fading paper – all manner of small odds and ends that had been stored in drawers and chests and attics since the Mist had come down.

            Anna hadn’t even known most of these still existed.  But Kristoff had found them and, with some help, assembled them into something priceless.  Before this, the only likeness she had of her mother and sister was the locket her father gave her that had contained portraits from when Elsa had been only two years old.  Runeard had destroyed the rest of the portraits or hired painters to cover her mother and sister in those that could not be burned.

            “This was so thoughtful of you, Kristoff,” she breathed after he broke the kiss.  “I can’t wait to show Father.”

            “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”  He asked.  “I mean, I kind of figured you’d keep it hidden here or something.”

            “No, I can put it in the hidden compartment with my locket and a few other things.  I haven’t given Grandfather any reason not to trust me. He doesn’t have my room searched like he does Father’s.”  She cradled the book against her chest.  “I want it close to me.”  Kristoff bit his lip, but remained silent.  They sat next to one another on Cecilia’s bed.  Anna leaned against him.

            “I’m sorry about Hans.”

            “That stuffed shirt?”  Kristoff snorted and grinned.  “He doesn’t bother me.”  He put his arm around her and rubbed her shoulder.  “I’m just sorry that you have to deal with him.”

            “Hopefully not too much longer.  Grandfather hasn’t said anything, but I assume he’ll head back to the Southern Isles after my birthday.  Then I’ll have until at least mid-autumn before he might try to make a quick visit before winter.  He tried that last year.  Father said he was hoping to be trapped here by an early ice floe.  But his family summoned him for a birth or something and he had to leave.”

            “Is he still Runeard’s favorite?”

            “Oh, by far.”  Anna rolled her eyes.  “Hans has him completely charmed.  Grandfather really thinks he would be content just to be my consort.”

            “And what do you think?”

            She shrugged and kissed his cheek.  “I don’t think it matters because I’m not going to be married to him.  No one has been pushing an engagement, those things last years, and once Runeard dies, Hans will be lucky if my Father doesn’t have him banned from Arendelle.  He doesn’t trust him.  And neither do I.  I think he’s putting on a show.”

            “Like you are?”  Kristoff teased and laughed as she swatted him.  “Takes one to know one?”  Anna grinned and shrugged again.  “Well, if he bothers you too much, you can always tell me.”

            “He doesn’t.  Are you going to be at the ball on Saturday?”

            “Only in the ice room.  I think you’re going to love the centerpieces that Rawls and Defenbach are carving.  Some of us will be helping move them around.”

            “So, you can sneak away after you’re all finished and come up to visit?  All the guards will be busy seeing the guests back to their quarters.”  She added hopefully.  He blushed and rubbed the back of his neck.

            “Anna, it’s not really appropriate-“

            “Aw, come on.  When has that ever stopped you?”  She pouted.  “Come on, it’s my birthday.  I’m the birthday girl!”

            He kissed the top of her head.  “No promises, but I’ll try, alright, birthday girl?”

 

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Anna smiled at the crowd of guests as she fanned herself.  The night was warm and the ice sculptures with their intricate decorations to showcase the skills of the carvers had long since wilted in the heat and lost their detail.  It was as though the ballroom was now full of melting Greek statues.  One or two guests had already passed out from the combination of the heat and the wine.  It was unusually stifling, even for a summer evening.

            Unfortunately, the dinner had been unbearably dull.  Grandfather had, of course, insisted that she be seated next to him.  But instead of allowing Cecilia to sit next to her so that she would have someone to talk to throughout the meal, he had switched her seat with Hans.  Instead of telling jokes and laughing about previous parties, maybe indulging in just a little harmless gossip about the various dignitaries in attendance and what they were wearing, Anna found herself forced to entertain Hans.

            It wasn’t that Hans was particularly difficult to entertain.  She had become very deft at redirecting his questions and getting him to talk more about himself.  He liked talking about himself.  Most people did.  He also liked to speak at great length about what he thought was best for Arendelle which, to her utter lack of surprise, almost mirrored her Grandfather’s opinions exactly when he was around.  They had spent a good twenty minutes talking over her plate about how to improve trade relations with Aland.

            It was a dull conversation and neither of them expected her to contribute much.  It was becoming unbearably boring by the time the plates were cleared away.  Anna felt her spirits lift at the thought of the dances beginning.  She would have to dance at least once with Hans, but after that it would just be rude if she didn’t dance with some of the other men.  And Grandfather wouldn’t want her to be a poor hostess.

            She looked over as he coughed and rose to address the room.  She glanced up, puzzled, but was distracted by Hans placing his hand atop hers and gently gripping her through his glove.

            “You forget yourself, sir,” she chided him, trying to keep her tone light and playful.  She tried to pull away, but he held her fast.  She frowned.  “Hans.  Stop.  We’re in public.”

            “It’s alright,” he murmured, excitement shining in his eyes.

            “Ladies and Gentlemen!”  Runeard’s voice boomed above her.  “If I may have your attention.”  The room fell silent.  “First, thank you for coming to my granddaughter’s birthday gala.”  There was polite applause punctuated by a few cheers.  Anna smiled as she continued trying to pull her hand free, nodding politely to those who smiled at her.  Runeard beamed down at her.

            “It is all too rare that we are able to gather for such a happy celebration.  To share our good fortune with one another.  If you will charge your glasses, please, I would like to give a toast.”  The staff had swiftly and silently placed champagne glasses at everyone’s seat.  Anna had hardly noticed, she had been so distracted by Hans’ unusual conduct.  As one, the crowd before her raised their glasses.

            “To Anna, the Princess of Arendelle, on her eighteenth birthday!”

            “To Anna!”  The toast echoed off the walls.  Anna blushed and looked up at her Grandfather once more.

            “Thank you, Grandfather,” she said as she began to rise.  But he placed a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her back into her seat.

            “I’m not done,” he said softly.  He turned back to the crowd and raised his glass again.  “And to Anna and Prince Hans of the Southern Isles!  Tonight, I have the honor of announcing their formal engagement!”